Sunset brings respite from the heat of the day, and the city of N’Djaména breathes out a collective sigh of relief as its inhabitants go through the routines of settling in for the night. Inside, my mother and sister are preparing dinner, and from my seat on the still-warm cement of our front porch, I absorb the last of the early spring day. We have reached the end of harmattan’s towering dust clouds, and this year’s hot season has not quite crescendoed to full strength.
A ten foot cinderblock wall, plastered and painted white and topped with razor wire, surrounds our small compound in the quartier Klémat, one of many Muslim neighborhoods in the capital city of Chad in central Africa. Tall oleanders with canary yellow blossoms shade most of the porch while bougainvillea bushes with bunches of red, papery flowers line the compound walls, their branches twisted and brambly. Our day guard Nathan rakes our sandy yard every morning in a Zen-like, Sisyphean exercise. In the far corner of the yard is our clothesline, supporting nearly dry laundry that I have been tasked with taking down before dinner. I will need to do this soon, but I hesitate to move, unwilling to break the peace of this moment.
Across the wall to my left, I can hear our Chadian neighbors chatting over their early dinner. From what I can smell, they cooked a spicy fish stew with tomatoes and onions over a charcoal fire. It smells heavenly. I can also smell diesel exhaust on the air from the many cargo trucks that rumble around the Rond Point Sonasut–the traffic circle at the end of our street. It does not smell as good as the stew from next door.
Just outside the gate, I can hear Daoud–our night guard–talking with a passerby. They speak in Chadian Arabic, so my eavesdropping is futile, but I enjoy listening to the momentary rise and fall of their voices. In the passerby’s absence, I can hear the quiet buzz of static from Daoud’s radio as a local station transmits what is probably a news broadcast. The volume is low enough that I cannot make out any words, but I assume that it is also in Arabic and beyond my comprehension. In the distance, I can hear the rising call to prayer.
The sky above the compound wall is dazzling in layered shades of fluorescent orange and pink as if someone had taken a cosmic highlighter and scribbled it across the expansive horizon. The setting sun’s rays pick out normally invisible highlights in my long brown hair, and my braid shines deep red in the fading light.
I wonder if young boys will be herding their flocks of sheep and goats back home across the soccer field that extends out beyond the traffic circle. If they are, then they will pass near the prison on their way to their suppers. This, in turn, reminds me of the prison break that happened the previous year on my birthday, awakening us all with the somewhat muffled explosions of flashbangs and tear gas canisters, accompanied by the staccato of discharging AK-47s.
Not wanting to linger on the volatility of life in the city, my thoughts move on to lighter subjects as I finally roust myself from my seat on the porch to take down the now dry laundry in the corner. As I remove clothing from the lines, stashing the wooden clothespins in an empty laundry detergent bottle, I fold each item precisely as my mother had taught me and as her mother had taught her in South Dakota, where they also hung laundry out to dry on a line. An agama–an orange-headed, blue-black bodied lizard–scrabbles across the wall nearby, its tiny claws gripping textures too small for me to see as its long tail swishes behind it. I glance at it out of the corner of my eye as it presses itself up in a series of rapid pushups meant to attract a mate, but he is the only lizard in this corner of the yard.
“Look somewhere else,” I direct him, smiling when he disappears over the wall.
Through the spiny branches of our singular lime tree, I notice that someone switched on the lights inside. This observation is accompanied by the whining hum of a mosquito near my ear, and I swat it away impatiently, hastening my efforts to bring in the laundry. I take anti-malarial prophylactics daily, but from personal experience, I know they are not always effective against the mosquitoes that come out en masse at dusk. I don’t mind the painful, itchy bites, but I do mind coming down with malaria.
Soon, the laundry basket is piled high with stacks of folded garments and, setting it on my hip, I pick my way barefoot across the sandy yard. Shadows are now creeping out of the corners of the compound, hiding the crickets that begin to chirp evening’s arrival. The sun is nearly set as I open the front door. I glance over my shoulder in time to see a fruit bat dip into the yard before winging back up to the streetlight to feast on the small cloud of insects attracted to the glow.
My mother’s clear voice draws my attention back inside as she chides me for keeping the door open. As I close the door against the evening, she says, “Dinner time.”